Top Ten Design Considerations for Course Development


The syllabus is a tangible document that outlines a course. It can provide a solid foundation for student success and is the first connection between instructor and student. Before creating a syllabus for your course, consider the following best practices for course development…

Begin with the End in Mind (the big picture)

The fundamental step of designing instruction is to identify what students should know or be able to do at the end of a course. Writing student-centered course objectives provides a strategic foundation for developing instructional activities as well as ways to assess student learning.

In their book, Understanding by Design (UbD), Wiggins and McTighe place as much emphasis on learning as teaching. Working backwards, instructors design courses by first determining what students need to learn and be able to do to demonstrate content mastery by the end of the course.

With the end in mind, instructors look at the course as a whole then break it into parts in order to make the whole achievable. Planning might look something like this:

Learning Outcomes → Course Objectives → Learning Modules/Topics of Study → Assessments → Assignments → Class Activities → Preparation for Class Activities → Class Instruction

Create Your Assessments

Once the foundation has been set, consider how students will demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a variety of ways. Formative assessment is a low-stakes check for understanding that informs both the student and instructor of progress so learning or teaching adjustments can be made. Formative assessment often has little to no graded points attached to it. Summative assessment is less frequent and is intended to provide the student and instructor with benchmark scores or end-of-course scores. Assessing students using only three or four summative assessments (an essay, a midterm and a final) provides little time to adjust learning for student success. Research has shown that formative assessment throughout the course increases student success.

Does this mean I need to throw away all of my quizzes and tests and start over? No. But what you might consider is how to assess, on a daily basis, how many students and to what extent students comprehend the class content covered during a lesson. And where student misconceptions might lie. There are numerous, quick formative assessments that can be accomplished in five minutes or less that can give you and your students the information needed to readjust either teaching or learning strategies.

Offer meaningful and frequent feedback

Research has shown that students have more success when they receive frequent high quality feedback throughout the course. Feedback is value-free, objective, and a description of performance in relation to a goal in a set of known standards or criteria (Saphier, Haley-Speca & Gower, 2008). Feedback is not judgement, criticism, or grades. Providing meaningful feedback encompasses supplying details on what a student did well, what they need to improve on, as well as resources identifying strategies to make improvements. Using a series of low-stakes assignments is one-way to establish frequent feedback, and more importantly, provides students with several opportunities to identify misconceptions and make adjustments before it's too late.

Providing objective, value-free feedback is a shift in many university classrooms. There are many ways to provide feedback to students without spending an inordinate amount of time in class or out of class. For example, you can use anonymous student work to highlight a misconception that may be common for many students, or you can use that anonymous work and demonstrate your critique of it, allowing students to then critique their own work for revision. Student feedback can take numerous forms. Start slowly. Try something specific. Talk with your students about the effectiveness of your strategy, and make adjustments as necessary.

Peer Feedback

Can students provide valuable feedback to each other – the kind that furthers their understanding and improves their products? The answer is a resounding, YES! Given the right instruction and tools, peer-to-peer feedback can not only enhance student learning but save you, as instructor, the time you would have spent giving feedback on student work.

Develop lessons that lead students to take an active role in their learning

Educational research suggests that active learning increases student performance in science, engineering and mathematics courses – as well as liberal arts course. Supplementing a traditional lecture course with active learning strategies encourages students to apply new-found knowledge to novel situations. Active learning is often associated with group or collaborative learning, but there are also individual student exercises that foster active learning.

Active Learning and Student Engagement

Does active learning improve student success? Student engagement has been shown to increase assessment grades and decrease the number of Failures and Withdrawals. For students, active learning increases confidence, motivation, and critical thinking. Some strategies work better in different disciplines and might not work perfectly the first time. Start small. Reflect on results. Trust the process. Trust yourself; and watch as your classroom comes alive with discussion, critical thinking, and student learning.

Discussion Strategies

Effective discussion leads students to deeper understanding, further critical thinking, and better retention of content matter. Where does discussion fit in to your class? How often should students discuss? How do you facilitate discussion in a class of 250 students? And can student-led discussions benefit students? Find techniques that best fit your content area, experiment with them, and revise to suit your needs.

Encourage students to "begin with the end in mind" by sharing assignment criteria up front

Providing students with learning outcomes not only produces better student work but also has the potential to streamline grading through the use of rubrics. A rubric is a tool that provides a scale to assess students on relevant learning criteria and is an easy way to communicate expectations.

Anyone who has ever spent time teaching, knows that grading is the most time-consuming part of the job. In fact, many instructors avoid giving too many assignments because grading "all those assignments" would take forever. Preparing a rubric and giving it to students ahead of time allows both teacher and student to know what is expected. These expectations, also known as criteria, allow you and your students to work toward a common goal of student learning. Once you have created a rubric for an assignment, grading of that assignment becomes easier and quicker – partly because students, knowing what is expected, turn in better work. Rubrics are also a great tool for peer feedback and self-assessment.

Incorporate Student Reflection into Your Class

Hattie's meta-analysis of 195 influences and their effect sizes related to student achievement shows that meta-cognition has a positive effect on student achievement. Students who are less skilled at learning, are often less skilled in meta-cognitive processes. When students are instructed in how to engage in metacognition, they are more likely to increase their academic achievement and successfully advocate for learning environments that support their learning.

As instructors and content-area experts, we understand the importance of reflecting on our expertise of content as well as our instructional practice. Not all students carry the art of reflection in their toolbox. Whether your course allows for continual reflection of content and process or periodical check-ins, student reflection can have a powerful effect on learning.

Choose and use technology wisely

Technology should be chosen by its ability to enhance the teaching and learning process. The rapid evolution of technology allows instructors present content in new and innovative ways that engage students in learning. The New Media Consortium's annual Horizon Report identifies learning technologies that help to address educational challenges such as improving digital literacy, integrated learning, and reducing the achievement gap.

Today's students live in a highly technology driven environment. Is it realistic for students to power it down when they walk into our classroom? Since students have many different learning modalities, we want to make sure we are providing a variety of student access to content. Technology can provide that variety. Using the same technology as students can be another way for instructors to relate to their students, cultivating student success.

Foster a culture in support of academic integrity

Class conversations about professional and academic integrity help establish a class norm of honesty, hard work, and a disposition of being a lifelong learner. Integrating frequent small-stakes assignments is a way to combat the stress and panic that can be associated with only a few large-stakes assignments, leading desperate students to make poor choices.

Although cheating might be seen as a student-only issue and not controllable by instructor, in fact, there is much you can do. By incorporating self-reflection, small group discussion, active learning, and formative assessment into your class, you give students more control of their learning, allowing successful outcomes. Research also shows that more students are apt to cheat if they do not have a personal relationship with their instructor, another reason to get to know your students.

Foster an inclusive classroom environment

Classrooms need to be safe for all learners to practice new skills, share ideas and grow. As instructors, we need to ensure that the course is inclusive for all populations. When developing a new course or creating a lesson, we need to take into consideration the histories and accomplishments of a variety of contributors and the perspectives of under-represented communities.

The Principles of Community support the Colorado State University mission and vision of access, research, teaching, service and engagement. A collaborative, and vibrant community is a foundation for learning, critical inquiry, and discovery. Therefore, each member of the CSU community has a responsibility to uphold these principles when engaging with one another and acting on behalf of the University."

Participate in continual professional development and collaboration

While it is important to take advantage of formal professional development opportunities offered at CSU, there is great merit in identifying like-minded colleagues who also aspire to enhance their students' learning experience. For this to be successful, you and your colleagues need to develop a collaborative, actionable plan of observations, discussions, and self-reflection.

Allowing a colleague to observe you in action can be a stressful experience for many instructors, but so can standing in front of 100 students who might or might not be engaged in lesson you spent hours preparing. Finding like-minded colleagues to share strategies, strengths, and weaknesses can transform your teaching and increase student learning.

Physics Students in an active learning classroom